New diabetes technology gives normalcy to patients

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Huge growth, big response

In 2010 alone, 1.9 million new diabetes cases were diagnosed in American adults, a number that put the medical community on high alert and pressed for technological innovation.

For Dr. Anita Swamy, co-director of Chicago Children’s Diabetes Center at La Rabida Children’s Hospital, the battle to control diabetes is a personal one. Swamy herself is pre-diabetic, while her father and 11 aunts and uncles also live with the disease.

“With diabetes all around me, my motivation is high to help those with diabetes look forward to a long healthy life by getting their diabetes under control,” Swamy said.

Though diabetes research has been both dynamic and impactful in recent decades, a cure remains elusive. As a result, maintenance technology has taken center stage, playing a critical role in normalizing the daily lives of diabetics, and simultaneously warding off the disease’s significant complications, including heart disease, stroke, blindness, kidney disease, high blood pressure, neuropathy and amputation.

“Without technology, we’d be stuck in the Stone Age,” said University of Chicago endocrinology professor Dr. Lou Philipson, who also serves as president of the Northern Illinois chapter of the American Diabetes Association.

According to the American Diabetes Association, more than 25 million Americans, nearly 9 percent of the U.S. population, have diabetes, though an estimated 7 million of those cases remain undiagnosed. The number of new cases, meanwhile, continues to trend upward; in 2010 alone, 1.9 million new cases were diagnosed in American adults, a number that put the medical community on high alert and pressed for technological innovation.

“In all the meters people use to treat diabetes, there have been continuous improvements in terms of accuracy, responsiveness, ease of use, and convenience, all of which is offering greater peace of mind,” said Northwestern Memorial Hospital endocrinologist Dr. Mark Molitch.

Insulin pumps continue to evolve as the primary technological advancement in diabetic treatment. A pump the size of a pocket pager delivers insulin throughout the day, adjusting to the body’s needs with precise delivery of the maintenance supplement. Rather than diabetics injecting themselves four to six times each day with insulin, the pump’s reservoirs are changed every two to three days.

“We saw the first pumps in the late 1960s, but they were the size of backpacks,” Swamy said. “Today, the pumps are getting better and making peoples’ lives easier.”

Continuous glucose monitors stand as the second major technological advancement. Used in institutional settings in the early 2000s, the glucose monitors have become more readily available for personal use. The monitors read and report on glucose levels every five minutes throughout the day, allowing patients and doctors to note trends and adjust care accordingly.

Medical researchers’ current endeavor is to marry the insulin pumps and the continuous glucose monitors, thereby creating an artificial pancreas. Such technology, currently being tested globally, would create a level of care and convenience previously unknown.

“That’s the ultimate goal: to have an automated system that combines the pump and the glucose monitor in one system,” Molitch said, noting insulin syringes and pens have also become important — and still-evolving — tools in controlling diabetes alongside “an unprecedented burst of new drugs over the last seven to eight years.”

As diabetics await the next technological breakthrough, however, the insulin pumps and glucose monitors continue providing a level of care that has radically improved quality of life.

“If the diabetes is well controlled, people can live very long, productive lives,” Philipson said. “Control is the key and technology has done much to help that.”